Question and answer session with Bishop Fairley

May 27, 2020
By Alan Wild
Like most of us, Bishop Leonard Fairley has been mostly sheltering at the bishop’s residence since the COVID-19 quarantines began in March. He recently met via Zoom with Cathy Bruce and Alan Wild, of the Kentucky Annual Conference staff, for a 40-minute question-and-answer session about the Conference’s reopening plan and other topics. Here are excerpts, with some answers edited for clarity and length: 

Question: Bishop, what can you tell the Conference about plans to resume in-person worship?

Answer: That’s a great question, as we have tried to follow the guidelines of Gov. Andy Beshear and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, you know that the governor’s response is that we can reopen worship on May 20th, which would have been Wednesday, and so, some of our churches were planning to open on the 24th. Well before the governor gave that statement, we had a task force that included clergy and health personnel, and they did a fantastic job of putting together a re-entry plan for all of our local churches.

Where I sit, as we prepare to open for worship, I do this from the heart of a pastor, and not just as somebody in power or authority, but just in my heart, asking our leaders and our churches, number one, make sure they’re practicing the guidelines, particularly Phase I (on how to prepare church buildings before worshipers return) from our Re-Entry Task Force. Also to put serious prayer around what they’re getting ready to do and search their own moral obligations about protecting the life and health of others.

I don’t want anybody to think that I’m not excited about churches opening – it’s been a long time since we’ve been gathered together as worship. For me, it has never been a question of fear vs. faith. It’s been a question of life and safety and health. And when I read the Gospels, Jesus is just as concerned about the life of a person as he is about that person’s soul. You can’t separate the two. And so, I hope that those churches reopening will have an amazing and wonderful worship time together and do that as safely as they can following the guidelines.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten from churches as far as the detailed guidelines that the Conference put out?

A: Many of our churches consider themselves to be blessed by us coming alongside them and offering this kind of help and this kind of leadership. It has been welcomed. It has been stated that you give us a way to do what we feel in our heart is right. They almost see it as a backup to what they’re already feeling, because nobody wants this disease, and of course nobody wants anyone to lose their life from it. And so they have been both welcoming and pleased with us offering the guidelines. They don’t feel like they are out there by themselves trying to make these decisions on their own. That’s the beauty of the United Methodist Church, that we are a connectional church, and we do not need to make major decisions like these on our own.

Now, some might not agree with the decision. But they are decisions that are made in community and in collaboration with other leaders. They’re prayerfully considered before we ever send them out. And so for the most part, churches have been very excited and welcoming and appreciative of the guidelines.

Q: What can you tell us about churches that have opted to open prematurely, before the guidelines were in place or earlier than the task force recommended?

A: We simply worked along with our Chancellor (Courtney Preston Kellner) and our district superintendents as far as those churches that questioned whether they should go ahead and do it before we officially opened up. And being with those churches that were either leaning toward having a service before we officially reopened our churches for congregations again. So there have been those kinds of conversations. We have not left them out there based on a decision that they have made without us being involved. And they have allowed it, even if they disagree with the decision again, they’ve at least engaged us.

Q: Individual churches and the Conference as a whole have taken a financial hit from COVID-19. What can you tell us, generally speaking, about our financial picture?

A: It is a pandemic that has hit not only the church, but it has hit our entire nation and our entire economy. The Kentucky Annual Conference is made up of mainly small, rural churches. Normally when a pandemic like this hits, it’s equally bad for those who are marginalized and those at the low end of the economy anyway. So, our Administrative Services team and our Conference Treasurer (Rev. David Garvin) have worked closely with the Cabinet, with our local churches, with our trustees and particularly the Board of Pensions to do what we have called a “holiday” on our missional giving and on our insurance and pension for our local pastors.

One of the things when this pandemic first hit that was amazing to me with our local churches, I had a local pastor call me from one of our small local churches, and these were the words he shared with me. He said: “Bishop, my church can’t afford to pay my salary. Can I take another job so that I can help my church out?” There was no way in the world that the Conference could not respond by not offering a holiday to faithfulness to the Lord such as that.

And so, we continue to try to find ways to come alongside local churches in that way, to make sure that as they go through this pandemic that they’re not out there alone. That the Annual Conference is coming alongside them, doing everything we can financially to ease the burden on our local churches. Because basically, the Annual Conference and the leadership in Annual conference has a heart for local churches. And so those two pieces have been part of what we have needed to do.

Now the local churches, going through what they’re going through, affects the Annual Conference. And the things the Annual Conference needs to look at as far as where we are financially. That means that we have had to do some major work with our budget. We have had to make some difficult decisions. And we have made those decisions prayerfully. Administrative Services has kept the Cabinet abreast of what’s been going on.

We also have a couple of other teams that are important in this work. We have the Bishop’s Operational Team, and that’s my team, that I share with, that I pray with – it’s not an elite team; I don’t want people to think that. It’s a team where I can share my vision, my hope as the shepherd of Kentucky. We have leaders from both clergy and laity from all aspects of the Annual Conference who sit on that Operational Team. And we have been dreaming and trying to discover ways to make our Annual Conference more effective in carrying out its mission.

There’s also a team called Missional Priorities, and that team is looking at this Annual Conference; we do many things good. But in this season in the life of the church, we’re trying to move our Annual Conference toward not doing a good job with a lot of things, but of doing those one or two or three things that God reveals to us not just good but great. The Missional Priorities team is that team that’s beginning to look at everything we do, and there are no golden calves. We simply want to put ourselves in a position to where we can live fully and effectively into who we say we are as God’s people.

It’s almost, if you will, like a “stop do” list. What new could we do, and what things have outlived their purpose? Or what things can you repurpose, so you can live into that new order that God has called you to live into? The pandemic has sort of sped that up a little bit with the things we’ve tried to do recently in our Annual Conference. You’ve seen where we’ve done something different with our directors, eliminating one position and reducing another to half-time. You’ve seen the very difficult decision that we’ve had to make around suspending operations at Kavanaugh Conference and Retreat Center. And that was absolutely gut-wrenching. And I want the Annual Conference to understand how difficult those kinds of decisions are.

We’ve had lately what I like to call the perfect storm in the life of the church. And perfect storms sometimes cause you to redirect your course. Before COVID-19 hit us, we were headed toward a General Conference where the church was going to have to make some difficult decisions, even as a denomination. So we’re in the middle of a perfect storm.

There are a couple of books that I would recommend us to read, and an article, that help us understand where we are and the kind of leadership called to make those decisions that we have had to make. One is called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season by Susan Beaumont. The other one is Necessary Endings: The Employees, Business, and Relationships that All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward, by Henry Cloud. And the article that was recommended to me is called “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup,” by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker and Dave Blanchard.

This perfect storm has moved us into a position where we can no longer do business as usual. It does not mean that God is not the middle of it: God is right there in the middle of the storm. And just like Peter, when they saw Jesus walking on the water, he said, “Lord let me come to you. “And then he began to walk to him and then he doubted and began to sink. But Jesus didn’t let him sink! He reached out His hand and picked him up and put him back on the boat.

So we’re in a liminal season. And there will be decisions that need to be made that people are going to ask, “What in the world were the Bishop and the Cabinet and the leaders thinking?” There are moments when thinking is not the only thing we need to do. We need to be relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to do tough things. Sometimes our intelligence and our thoughts reach their limit and we have to turn to God. And sometimes the answer we get from God is, “Lord, I can’t believe this is what you’re asking us to do.”

Q: You did briefly talk about General Conference, which has been moved from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic. What are the ramifications of having more than a year’s delay?

A: Well, I do want to say this as we talk about all these things that are important to us as a connectional church – General Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, all of those things are key into who we are. Let me make clear that this is the postponed 2020 General Conference. We’re not having another General Conference. Even our Annual Conference, we postponed it from June to December.

About where the church is and how it’s going to affect us moving forward, I’m going to state a hope more than I do a fact. Because in these moments, and I was doing this before it got postponed, I was saying: Lord, may we take time anFd space to really spend time reflecting, not on winners and losers, not on traditionalists or centrists or progressives, not on liberals or conservatives. But simply, take us back to when we first met you. Take us back to what that felt like, when we were outsiders. Take us back to that moment. Let us reflect on that.

I’ll say this and I hope this comes across the right way. I would not want a pandemic to hit anybody. But I hope that we are taking advantage of this space to really think and rethink and to pray about the direction of the church. I once heard it said that you don’t want to waste a good financial crisis. Even though I don’t believe God caused this pandemic, we don’t want to waste a good pandemic, either (laughing). I hope we’re taking some time to create that space for more dialogue, for more prayer and discernment. And as I say, we’ve been discerning this thing forever. But sometimes you find yourself at the last moment with one more day of discernment, and it may be that one day that God opens the door and gives you holy sight that you did not have before.

Now, does that make people stop, always? No. You’ll still have those groups out there, I know that’s true. So I hope it’s caused us to use that space that we needed to think and to pray. And so I answer that question as a hope, and that’s what I do best as a preacher of the good news of the Gospel. Regardless of what happens, I can hope. And if I lose hope, then I might as well quit. So I’m hopeful that Kentucky can continue to be an Annual Conference that lives into its mission and its vision. Whatever General Conference decides, whatever Kentucky decides based on what comes out of General Conference, there will still be people who need to know Jesus Christ. And I hope that’s the one thing that we don’t forget, that we’re framing this argument, for lack of a better term, in that direction. If we’ve had hearts of war, I hope that this time has helped us develop hearts of peace.

Q: Bishop, as far as Annual Conference this December, I know the hope has been that the six-month delay would allow us to meet in person. What kind of contingency plans can we share with the Conference right now in case we can’t safely meet in person, even in December?

A: We’re now talking about contingency plans in a number of places. Again, I am blessed to serve alongside some gifted people in this Annual Conference. Our Program & Arrangements Team has already built and continues to work on a contingency plan if we can’t meet in December. Also, as far as the general church is concerned, we had a Zoom call the other day with the whole Council of Bishops, and our General Chancellor was on that meeting, and we were discussing what Annual Conferences needed to know and be aware of if we needed to go to virtual Annual Conferences.  This is the one thing I want to convey to people during this time: I know everybody’s anxious, but I need us to be at peace while we walk through this. The Lord has not brought us here just to leave us, and He’s brought us through some very challenging times before now.

The other contingency that I want to talk about is, I put out a letter about the appointive process. There was some concern, with some people saying:”Are you going to make preachers move in the middle of a pandemic? That’s heartless.” And that’s true. It would be heartless. And we’re not going to do that, even if we have to stretch that moving date out beyond June, that’s what we will do. The Cabinet has met (via Zoom) and made our appointments, which has been quite difficult in this season. But the Cabinet has been faithful in making sure that every church has the pastor that it needs to move into the future that God has promised. But this pandemic causes us to do things like we’ve never done it before.

So there are contingency plans across the board. Everything that we have to do as the United Methodist Church, there are contingencies for each area. And what I’ve asked the people of Kentucky do to, again, is to trust that fine leadership. It may not always be how you think it should be. I would ask the Annual Conference to pray for your leadership. If we as leaders ever needed prayer – and we have always needed it – it is definitely now.

And I’ve watched churches even in the middle of the perfect storm. Even though we’ve given a holiday to churches, some have continued to send in this missional giving – I mean, it’s amazing what some of our local churches are doing! And as for me, I’m not trying to get away from my responsibility as a leader, but that’s where I’d rather be – I’d rather be out celebrating with these folks who are going, “Look, we’re just going to serve the Lord.” That’s where I want to be, but I know that on this side, there are decisions that aren’t always the most pleasant to make. But I hear stories of these local churches and what they’ve done, making masks, feeding people, and all these new forms of learning how to reach people through worship in new and exciting ways that they’ve never done before. I mean, even some of our little churches have done these amazing things. And nobody likes trials and tribulations, but sometimes, in the tribulations and the trials, God births something new that we never would have done if we had not been taken out of our comfort zones. And these little churches, they’re doing it! And our larger churches, they’re doing it! Those are the things that just energize me, to watch them.

The one joy that I’ve gotten out of this – and I don’t want to be stuck in the house all the time – but I’ve also been able to be in worship services two, three and four times a Sunday, to hear preachers I’ve never heard or would never get to hear! And just to watch them – Easter Sunday was amazing. You know how churches have Easter lilies decorating all the sanctuaries. Frankfort First UMC decided the flowers they were going to use this year would be flowers in nature. And they invited church members to take pictures of their gardens and flowers. And what better way can you celebrate Easter than with live flowers, not the kind you can cut that would be dead in two or three days, but living flowers. Those types of things are what get me excited, because that’s the church!

 I want to applaud the churches out there, and the pastors. You have done extremely well. Now, I need the pastors and the lay people in leadership at the church, to remember: These can also be difficult times for our own mental and spiritual health. And as leaders, we can’t give what we don’t have. And so, I want to ask every leader in the Kentucky Annual Conference to take some time taking care of your soul and of your spirit. That’s the other way that we’re going to tackle these difficult issues, is that we’re going to take care of our souls and make sure that our souls are right, so that we can see clearly to deal with the other issues. I hope that’s what we’re doing. And I’m preaching to myself, as well. Because, you can get lost in Zoom calls, you can get busy with Zoom calls. “Oh Lord, another Zoom call! (laughing).” Let’s take care of ourselves and let’s take care of one another through this pandemic.

Q: I was going to ask you about glory sightings, but it sounds like you may have already covered that. Are there any others that you didn’t touch on that you would want to talk about?

A: I have a personal one. One of the things that Dawn and I have done is we’ve enjoyed sitting out on the back porch when it’s not cloudy. And we have two bird feeders. And you just watch this amazing array of birds. And we have about six rabbits, nine squirrels, two woodpeckers, three deer, four chipmunks – and we throw out corn to them now, so they’re beginning to get sort of tame. And as simple as it sounds, that even reminds me of the connectedness of life. All of life is connected. We can think that we can separate, but there’s no such thing as separation in God’s kingdom. And that’s why He sent Jesus to work toward that reconciliation. We’re all tied up, whether we like it or not, into this mutual garment of accountability and mutuality. We just are.
And I’m not about to be St. Francis, I’m not about to go in and be a monk (laughing). But when I’m out, I do think about St. Francis and the simplicity of his life. All he wanted to do was live simply so that others could simply live. And that’s what we’ve got to do with this pandemic. It’s not just about my rights, it’s about our obligation.

Q: Earlier, you spoke about churches reopening. Where do things stand with the reopening of the Conference Office, which has been closed and the staff working from home since early March?

A: We have been protecting our staff. We can’t ask local churches to do something that our staff isn’t willing to do themselves. We have a team that’s actually made up of some of our staff people, to help guide with reopening. We’re not at a place where we’re ready to reopen the building yet, because number one, just like everybody else, we’re trying to find supplies for cleaning. And finding supplies in this day and age is difficult!

We will have some of the same guidelines as our churches – staff people will have to wear masks. And I know what’s it’s been like for people who say, “I don’t’ want to wear a mask.” I understand that. But we’ll be following the same kind of procedures. We will make sure to let the Annual Conference know when we are ready to reopen the building.